Can consumers get past the yuck factor and embrace mealworm protein?
By Katharine Hopkins
Mealworms could hit restaurants and supermarkets in products such as burgers, pasta and even chocolate-coated snacks in the relatively near future in some areas.
This year, the yellow mealworms were approved for human consumption by the European Union. A new food product is defined as something that has not been consumed before 1997. To gain approval for new food products, they must be cleared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma and have ‘scientific studies to ensure their safety.
There are no known cases of transmission of diseases or parasitoids to humans through the consumption of insects, provided the insects have been handled under the same sanitary conditions as any other food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Currently, it is only legal to sell mealworms in dried form, but companies are already getting creative with this new ingredient.
The approval of this product was pushed by the French company insect, which received $ 372 million in funding to create the world’s largest insect farm. The 100,000 tonnes of mealworms the company plans to produce each year will be used for wet pet food, as well as human protein products as an alternative to whey protein, according to Forbes.
Can consumers overcome the ‘yuck factor’ and embrace insects as a new environmentally friendly source of protein?
Entomophagy is the practice of humans eating insects. It is carried out by about a trimester of the world’s population. In some places, insects are considered delicacies. Chefs and food companies in Europe are now working to develop products incorporating the creepy critters that will appeal to the Western palette.
Yellow mealworms can be produced for consumption in two ways. Historically, insects have been captured from the wild for consumption. In the EU, we do not have a sufficient number of insects for this method of production to be viable. There is also the question of how to ensure that wild caught insects are safe for consumption.
The second option is to breed the insects. Through agriculture, governments can regulate the feeding of mealworms and prevent them from being exposed to harmful chemicals such as pesticides. The breeding of mealworms as mini-breeding allows insects to reproduce without disturbing the wild insect population.
The EU has only approved mealworms from a select the number of countries.
To harvest the mealworms, first of all, the eggs are separated from the breeding beetles by a sifting process. Mealworms are often fed wheat flour or bran by farmers, but the worms can live on an omnivorous diet. When the larvae have reached the desired size, they are washed with water before being boiled, which kills the mealworms. They are then dehydrated, usually by cooking or frying, and are ready for human consumption.
Yellow mealworms can be sold whole as a snack or powdered.
A key difference in insect production compared to other farm animals is the fact that the insects are normally eaten whole without any part of the mealworm having been removed. Due to their small size, it can be difficult to decontaminate insects if they are contaminated by the food given to them or other materials with which they come in contact. This is why the regulations regarding the housing of mealworms are so important, especially the materials used for such housing.
Safe preparation and allergens
Because mealworms are still a new product in the Western food market, there isn’t as much research on them as human food products as there is with more established food products, like meat. Studies that have been conducted show that standard practices for safe food handling and preparation should be applied when preparing insects, but it is not yet clear whether best business food safety practices need to be changed to this new type of food.
The risks of insects transmitting pathogens to humans are considered to be very low, at least compared to meat and poultry, which can carry pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and those related to bird flu and mad cow disease.
However, insects such as mealworms can be a vector of microorganisms harmful to humans. Some germs are part of the insect’s natural life cycle, while others are caught by contact. The best way to protect yourself against harmful microbes is to put in place controlled and hygienic breeding conditions.
Insects can also carry food poisoning bacteria in the same way as other food products. This bacteria can be detected at any stage of the supply chain. Insects that have been allowed to air dry, rather than being roasted or fried, have a higher risk of contact with harmful bacteria. Therefore, it is important that the mealworms come from reputable suppliers approved by the EU.
Allergens are another problem that needs further research. Allergens are triggered by protein and more research into the possibility that consumers react to these yellow mealworms is needed. People who have allergic reactions to shellfish and the mites have been shown to react to other insects as well.
It is also possible that the allergens in the insect’s diet are passed on to the consumer, for example, if the mealworm was fed wheat, a person with a wheat allergen might react unfavorably after ingesting the small critters because whatever is in the worm’s gut will also end up in the gut of humans. But this still requires further research. For this reason, it is important to be vigilant about this new ingredient and to know what the mealworms were fed with.
Food and environment
Mealworms contain high quality proteins, vitamins and amino acids. The health benefits of mealworms are equivalent to those of meat or fish. They contain monounsaturated fats and omega 3 fatty acids which are essential elements of a healthy and balanced diet. Studies have even shown that consuming insect protein can lower cholesterol.
The consumption of insects is much more ecological than the consumption of meat because the insects consume much less resources. Study has shown that crickets need six times less forage than livestock produce the same amount of protein. Insects are also more efficient at converting food into nutrients for human consumption than other forms of farming. Insects convert 2 kg of food in 1 kg of usable insect mass, while cattle need 8 kg of feed for 1 kg of body weight gain. This means that we now have a source of lean protein that literally doesn’t cost us the earth.
Development of new products
Along with the new food safety directives, the addition of mealworms to the diet of European consumers is an innovative step in the right direction. Dried mealworms are said to have a peanut flavor. This, along with the crunchy texture of dried mealworms, could cause them to become a nutritious and healthy snack. European companies are getting creative, now with chocolate-coated mealworms and staples like BBQ and Peri Peri to appease Western taste buds. Mealworm powder is already used to make insect pasta and burgers.
Studies show that mealworm protein matches the quality of milk protein, making it a great alternative to high protein fitness products like shakes and bars.
With so many great benefits for mealworms, they seem like a no-brainer. But before we in the West can fully reap the benefits that this new type of food has to offer, public perception of insect consumption should change.
About the Author: Katharine Hopkins holds a BSc (2: 1) in Food Marketing Management from Sheffield Hallam University. For her year in industry as part of my degree course, she worked at the NPD for M&S and Bakkavor. After graduation, she worked for Speedibake (which is part of Associated British Foods) for a year in the NPD. She then did NPD for Premier Foods for two years. She is currently the Bakery Manager at Seven Hills Bakery in Sheffield, England.